The World Health Organization said on Wednesday that non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes are responsible for 74 percent of deaths globally, and that suppressing risk factors could save millions of lives.
A report by the United Nations health agency shows that so-called non-communicable diseases, which are often preventable and caused by unhealthy lifestyle or living conditions, kill 41 million people each year, including 17 million under the age of 70.
The report, “Invisible Numbers,” said heart disease, cancer, diabetes and respiratory diseases now outnumber infectious diseases as the world’s deadliest.
“Every two seconds, someone under the age of 70 dies of a non-communicable disease,” Benti Mikkelsen, head of the WHO department that oversees such diseases, told reporters in Geneva.
However, little domestic and international funding is spent on non-communicable diseases. This is truly a tragedy.”
Non-communicable diseases are not only the biggest cause of death in the world, but they also have serious impacts on how people deal with infectious diseases, as the Covid-19 pandemic has shown.
The report said people with non-communicable diseases such as obesity or diabetes were more likely to develop serious illness and die from the virus.
– Poor countries hardest hit –
“The data paints a clear picture. The problem, the report warns, is that the world is not looking at it.
Contrary to popular belief, these “lifestyle” diseases are not a problem in rich countries.
The study said 86 percent of premature deaths from non-communicable diseases occur in low- and middle-income countries.
This makes tackling the problem not only a health issue but also a “justice” issue, Mikkelsen said, noting that many people in poor countries do not get the prevention, treatment and care they need.
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A new data portal on non-communicable diseases launched by the World Health Organization on Wednesday shows the highest prevalence of deaths from cardiovascular disease – the world’s biggest killer – in countries such as Afghanistan and Mongolia.
The World Health Organization has said that it is misleading to think of non-communicable lifestyle diseases, because so much exposure to risk factors is out of an individual’s control.
“Often, the environment in which we live constrains our decisions, making healthy choices difficult, if not impossible,” the report said.
While the numbers are staggering, the World Health Organization stressed that this is a largely solvable problem, because the main risk factors for non-communicable diseases are known, as is the best way to treat them.
– Tobacco use, unhealthy diet –
Tobacco use, unhealthy diet, harmful use of alcohol, lack of physical activity and air pollution are among the main reasons for the rise in the numbers of non-communicable diseases.
Tobacco use alone is responsible for more than eight million deaths each year.
“More than a million of these deaths are among non-smokers, non-tobacco users, and innocent bystanders,” Doug Beecher, chief advisor to WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus for non-communicable diseases, told reporters.
Another eight million deaths are attributed to unhealthy diets, which means either too little or too much food or poor quality food, the report said.
Harmful alcohol use, among other things, to cirrhosis and cancer, kills about 1.7 million people annually, while physical inactivity is responsible for an estimated 830 thousand deaths.
But the World Health Organization argued in its report that there are clear and proven ways to reduce those risk factors, and insisted that if all countries implemented them, 39 million lives could be saved over the next seven years.
“WHO is calling on all governments to adopt interventions known to work to help avert 39 million deaths by 2030 and make countless other lives longer, healthier and happier,” said Mikkelsen.
The report emphasized that relatively small investments in the prevention and treatment of non-communicable diseases can make a big difference.
It added that pumping an additional $18 billion annually into such measures in poor countries could generate net economic benefits of $2.7 trillion over the next seven years.